CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA?s only active female shuttle commander and a born flier are ready to launch into orbit next week to continue assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).
Veteran astronaut Pamela Melroy will command the space shuttle Discovery?s planned Tuesday launch, with first-time spaceflyer George Zamka serving as pilot during their STS-120 mission to the ISS.
?This is a fantastic moment for any crew?arriving where your vehicle is ready and waiting for you at the pad,? Melroy told reporters here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center Friday. ?We?re really excited to be here.?
Melroy, Zamka and five crewmates are set to launch toward the ISS on Oct. 23 at 11:38 a.m. EDT (1538 GMT) to install a new connecting module to the space station. The astronauts will also relocate an older solar array segment and ferry a new crewmember to the orbital laboratory during their planned 14-day mission.
?Pambo? in charge
Known by the nickname ?Pambo? to her crew, Melroy is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel from Rochester, New York, who is making her third spaceflight with Discovery?s STS-120 mission.
?Being the commander of a shuttle mission is a big responsibility,? she has said. ?The whole team is looking to you and depending on you for leadership and to keep your eye on the ball, and that?s enough.?
Melroy is only the second, and possibly the last, female astronaut to command a NASA shuttle mission before the agency retires its three-orbiter fleet in 2010. But Melroy?s path to space is rooted not in aviation, but in the spirit of exploration.
?I think there?s something that is profoundly moving about the idea of exploring,? said Melroy, 46, in a NASA interview. ?[I]t?s that idea of exploration, but also of doing something that?s of tremendous value to everybody, because I think that the things that we?re learning have an impact on everybody?s life.?
The lure of space propelled Melroy to obtain degrees in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College, as well as earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the U.S. Air Force in 1983 and served 200 combat and combat support hours in operations Just Cause, Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
It was while serving as a test pilot that Melroy, who is married to husband Douglas, was selected to join NASA?s astronaut corps. She served as NASA?s second female shuttle pilot - after Eileen Collins, who also went on to command missions - during the STS-92 and STS-112 construction flights to the ISS in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and enjoyed seeing the fruits of her orbital work firsthand.
?While we?re doing assembly, the space station visually looks different with every assembly mission,? said Melroy, who has spent about 24 days in space. ?And so the pictures that you take, the video that you take, the pictures that your eyes take are unique and just a moment of history. It?s like watching some great work like the pyramids or some enormous structure going up for the first time.?
NASA has touted Discovery?s STS-120 mission as its most complicated shuttle flight to date, but Melroy said her crew is upbeat despite the challenge.
?If I could pick out one thing about the crew though that I think helps a lot it's that we share a very strong sense of humor together,? said Melroy, whose crew riffed on her Pambo nickname by choosing their own handles ending in ?-bo? during training. ?That?s my crew. They?re wonderful, they?re a hoot.?
For Zamka, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, Tuesday?s planned launch aboard Discovery will be the ultimate flying experience.
?Being an astronaut is a great combination of flying, adventure, and working with wonderful folks from many different specialties, on an international level. It?s a hugely attractive thing to me,? said Zamka, 45, in a NASA interview. ?For me, flying on the space shuttle is the pinnacle of flying an airplane.?
Wile he?s making his first spaceflight, Zamka is no stranger to flying. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, he grew up in locales ranging from New York City and Michigan to Medellin, Columbia, and his travels stretched further around the world after he joined Marine Corps service in 1984. He obtained degrees in mathematics and engineering management, and flew a variety of aircraft and 66 combat missions over Kuwait and Iraq during Desert Storm before being selected as an astronaut in 1998.
?I guess moving around a lot from a very base level you kind of learn how to get along in different environments,? he told reporters in an interview, adding that the skill has been useful training for spaceflight. ?And basically what I think it comes down to is just respect for other people's viewpoints, and I probably got that from years of being uprooted and planted in different spots.?
As a boy, Zamka was enamored by the concept of human spaceflight, but never considered that he?d actually end u pa professional astronaut waiting for launch. But that didn?t stop him from collecting space-themed toys and meddling with model rocketry.
?We would buy rocket kits and we?d take them down to the river and we?d launch these rockets in the river,? said Zamka, who is married to wife Elisa and has two children. ?I tended to kind of experiment with the instructions. They were more like kid-seeking missiles.?
Zamka said he hopes to spot his old stomping grounds in New York City, Columbia and elsewhere from space. He?s also hoping to take some tips on spaceflight command from Melroy.
?She gives us room?to learn and develop our own way to get the task done,? he said. ?She's an excellent commander and I hope to be as well some day.?
- SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-118 Shuttle Mission
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage
- IMAGES: Next Stop Mars: NASA's Phoenix Mission